Death of Innocence: The Story of the Hate Crime That Changed America
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There are many heroes of the civil rights movement—men and women we can look to for inspiration. Each has a unique story, a path that led to a role as leader or activist. Death of Innocence is the heartbreaking and ultimately inspiring story of one such hero: Mamie Till-Mobley, the mother of Emmett Till—an innocent fourteen-year-old African-American boy who was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and who paid for it with his life. His outraged mother’s actions galvanized the civil rights movement, leaving an indelible mark on American racial consciousness.
Mamie Carthan was an ordinary African-American woman growing up in 1930s Chicago, living under the strong, steady influence of her mother’s care. She fell in love with and married Louis Till, and while the marriage didn’t last, they did have a beautiful baby boy, Emmett.
In August 1955, Emmett was visiting family in Mississippi when he was kidnapped from his bed in the middle of the night by two white men and brutally murdered. His crime: allegedly whistling at a white woman in a convenience store. His mother began her career of activism when she insisted on an open-casket viewing of her son’s gruesomely disfigured body. More than a hundred thousand people attended the service. The trial of J. W. Milam and Roy Bryant, accused of kidnapping and murdering Emmett (the two were eventually acquitted of the crime), was considered the first full-scale media event of the civil rights movement.
What followed altered the course of this country’s history, and it was all set in motion by the sheer will, determination, and courage of Mamie Till-Mobley—a woman who would pull herself back from the brink of suicide to become a teacher and inspire hundreds of black children throughout the country.
Mamie Till-Mobley, who died in 2003 just as she completed this memoir, has honored us with her full testimony: “I focused on my son while I considered this book. . . . The result is in your hands. . . . I am experienced, but not cynical. . . . I am hopeful that we all can be better than we are. I’ve been brokenhearted, but I still maintain an oversized capacity for love.” Death of Innocence is an essential document in the annals of American civil rights history, and a painful yet beautiful account of a mother’s ability to transform tragedy into boundless courage and hope.
From the Hardcover edition.
were changed by what happened there in Tallahatchie County. In fact, the whole county went through changes. Nearly a quarter of the entire population had left by the end of the 1950s. But there was something else that was transforming. I’m no historian. But you don’t have to be a historian to tell about the history you have lived. You just need a long memory. There are things that happened to me a long time ago that I will never forget. There are things that happened because of the things that
just to look at him made me feel safe, secure. So, while I might have felt lonesome at the time, I wasn’t alone. Not by a long shot. There were loving people around to tend to me. But there was something else going on. Quite a bit, in fact. The whole world was shifting, even as I was shifting. It felt like we were changing together in a way, the world and I, caught up in that transitional season, moving between the extremes. In Montgomery, Rosa Parks, a strong and determined black woman, had
couldn’t get my pole in the water. The line kept getting tangled and Gene would have to help me out. Or he would be trying to get the bait on, or trying to get the hook on before that. There was always something that kept me from getting that line in the water. We found another spot. Deeper in Wisconsin. Much deeper. We went all the way to the Mississippi River, the place where Wisconsin and Minnesota are separated by the river. Close to the beginning of it all. The source. It was beautiful,
such a little boy without that look of his. Then there was that walk. I had to think about that one. I mean, I just couldn’t have other women looking at Gene the way I was looking at him. But there are some things, some down-to-the-bone things about a man that make him what he is. Things you can’t change. Things you probably shouldn’t even try to change. It would be easier just to find another man. As it turns out, Bo and I weren’t the only attraction Gene had when he’d want to come over. He was
for all of us. But I could feel her cracking as she told me, or ordered me, or begged me, to come to her. Right then. I called Gene, told him, and he insisted on taking me to Mama’s. He wasn’t that far away, so okay, fine, I could wait for him. I probably didn’t need to drive anyway, not while I was in that frame of mind. So, yes, I would wait. Sit tight. But I couldn’t sit still. I needed to do something. I started making my bed. And finally I stopped, I caught myself. Why on earth was I doing